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Frans_Jozef
Monday, September 20th, 2004, 11:29 PM
And then came clothing and speech

Why was Europe colonised by hominids half a million years ago? And what sort of people were these first colonisers?

There may be evidence, as some claim, for a sporadic occupation of Spain around a million years ago at sites such as Atapuerca and Orce (see BA, September 1995). However, without doubt the main colonising event began in the interglacial, or warm period, of 524-478,000 years ago. During this period incontestable sites are found throughout the western part of the continent. The originators of this colonis-ing thrust are thought to have come from Africa and the Levant, and their principal tool was the stone handaxe. They are referred to generally as archaic modern humans or specifically as Homo cf heidelbergensis, although some researchers still see them as Homo erectus rather than an evolved form of this lineage.

As for why these hominids moved into Europe, hypotheses have been postulated such as a change in the composition of the carnivore populations of Europe, thus reducing competition for food resources; or climatic and hence environmental change in Africa, forcing a general population movement. It is feasible that these populations met up with other colonisers coming from the east via Asia and the Caucasus.

But what forces were driving the colonisers steadily northwards and east? The archaeological record suggests it was unlikely to be because of competition with a remnant population, or population pressure amongst the colonisers. One explanation may be recolonisation of the continent by flora and fauna, as the inter-glacial climate began to take effect - hominids may well have moved in conjunction with expanding ecological zones that satisfied their subsistence requirements. There exists too, the possibility that the migration route may have been around the European coastline, which would have avoided many of the natural obstacles of a direct route, although access to large grazing herds would have been restricted.

A great deal has been made in recent literature of the shock to early hominids that the move out of Africa must have entailed. Indeed, the absence of handaxes among the first occupants of sites such as Orce and Atapuerca has been explained on the grounds that they could not maintain their social networks, group memory and hence the knowledge of how to make this particular tool. The severity of the European climate, compared to Africa, is also said to have probably played a large part in influencing hominid behaviour.

In my view, the European climate is unlikely to have troubled the early colonisers dramatically. If we assume that colonisation began around the beginning of the interglacial, say 520,000 years ago, then to reach Britain by half a million years ago from say Ubeidiya in Israel (the nearest site outside Europe which we know was occupied in the period), requires only a yearly range expansion of 0.5km per annum for a coastal route or 0.2km per annum on a direct route across the continent. Expansion would not have been steady, but would have been faster through areas low in resources and vice versa; but the important point is to understand the long timescales involved, and to appreciate the amount of time available for the hominids to adjust to the different climate, geography and seasonality of Europe.

Moreover, the night-time and winter cold of the upland areas and deserts of Africa, not to mention the extreme seasonality of northern and north-eastern Africa, would probably have made the climate along the northern shores of the Mediterranean seem quite equitable by comparison. Surely this is the key to hominid success in Europe - namely, that on the whole the extremes of climate in the western end of the continent are not particularly marked, with the effect that food resources are rarely under the stresses they are often put to in Africa both north and south of the Sahara. An Afrocentric viewpoint, with other regions seen as the poor relations, has predominated over many years of Palaeolithic research and deserves to be brought up short. Africa may have been the cradle and nursery of humankind, but Europe and Asia were the schools of learning that saw humankind into adulthood.

So by whatever route and after many thousands of years the colonisers walked into southern Britain via the chalk downland that connected England to France. Some of them presumably followed the coast round to the west; and at Boxgrove, the evidence of some of their activities has been preserved in situ. What further insights, then, does it allow us into their behaviour and lifestyle?

At present it is not possible to assign any seasonality in the killing of large mammals at Boxgrove, especially as many of the remains are so fragmentary. However, given that the interglacial climate was very similar to today's, and that the resident animals would not have needed to move off in winter, we may assume a year-round occupation of the area. It is almost certain that with or without fire, for which there is no evidence at Boxgrove, clothing would have been needed to survive even a normal southern English winter.

Of course this clothing is likely to have been rudimentary, in the form of hides and skins. The interesting point is that these `clothes' would have required a degree of preparation to make them wearable. Unless a skin is treated very quickly it will either go as stiff as a board or attract every insect and parasite for miles, and eventually rot. The evidence for careful skinning of the carcasses, and the discovery of a handaxe this summer with the distinctive wear-pattern you get from scraping a hide, confirm that the skins were a valuable commodity.

It must be stressed, however, that the skin was probably only part-cleaned at the kill-site while the butchery was being carried out, and that as soon as butchery was complete the skin and meat were taken back to more permanent and safer areas on the high ground above the cliff. At Boxgrove we only rarely find `retouched' flake tools designed for specialist jobs such as the working of hide, wood and bone. Most types are represented - side scrapers, end scrapers, notch scrapers, and so on - but in total they number no more than 20. One explanation is that they were primarily used in more settled woodland camps on the Downs, an idea reinforced by the lack of campsites in front of the cliff and the removal of very large amounts of meat and skins away from the kill areas (see last month's article). At and around these woodland sites it is likely that wood was worked into spears and other tools and that shed antlers were collected and fashioned into soft hammers, as well as stored for many months. The amount of wear on these hammers shows they were used for long periods, and therefore that they must have been kept and carefully looked after over this time.

I find it hard to envisage all these activities taking place without a form of communication that was more advanced than that of our primate relatives. Hunting and butchering large mammals in open environments would have, in hominids, required a level of planning and co-operation that could only be serviced by speech.

The presence of stone tools in sediments at Boxgrove dating from the beginning of the subsequent Anglian cold period (c 478-423,000 years ago), and from cold sediments at sites like Swanscombe and Clacton, dating from the very end of the Anglian period, point to an adaptability amongst these hominids not previously thought possible. It is not yet known whether they survived in southern England throughout the cold period, but their presence at the beginning and end suggests that populations never moved too far away.

Conversely, they are not yet fully `modern' humans. This is the puzzling conundrum - because contrary to established views they were organised, they could plan and were adaptable. However, unless we are missing a great deal from the non-surviving organic record, they don't appear to have been particularly innovative, probably as a result of a lack of competition. It appears highly likely that hominids did exactly the same sorts of thing during the following two interglacials and even the one after that, the first visible technological change being the introduction, 300-250,000 years ago, of the `Levallois' technique of stone working throughout North Africa and Europe - in which flakes are removed from a prepared stone core.

It begins to look as if the increasing complexity of Middle and early Upper Palaeolithic tool kits (c 100-30,000 years ago) was the result of environmental or climatic pressure, forcing adaptation and innovation during the long cold stages after the last interglacial (c 125,000 years ago), and I infer from this that the earlier cold stages, of around 700-250,000 years ago, were not as severe in their effects on large mammals as we have previously envisaged.

It is also difficult to imagine speech without any manifestation of art or ceremony but at present none has been found. It appears that like the Neanderthals, into which species the Boxgrove hominids evolved, these hominids combined physical prowess with a `partly modern' behavioural pattern in order to survive successfully in Europe for over 400,000 years. Whether they were actually human or not depends on our definition of the term; but it is certainly time to study them as a species in their own right, rather than to position them either as tool-assisted apes or as a failed model of ourselves.

Mark Roberts is the Director of the Boxgrove Project.

http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba19/ba19feat.html#roberts

Dr. Solar Wolff
Tuesday, September 21st, 2004, 04:07 AM
What is the evidence that Homo erectus or H. heidelbergenis wore clothing? Why do we just assume that they did? Chimps and Gorillas live in Africa and have hairy bodies. In fact, all primates do except H. sapiens. The default setting would be that their bodies were covered with fur. This would explain their being cold adapted. After all, even if H. erectus had no hair in Africa, (also an assumption) there is no reason they could not have regained their lost pelts in 500,000 years.

Frans_Jozef
Tuesday, September 21st, 2004, 03:44 PM
What is the evidence that Homo erectus or H. heidelbergenis wore clothing? Why do we just assume that they did? Chimps and Gorillas live in Africa and have hairy bodies. In fact, all primates do except H. sapiens. The default setting would be that their bodies were covered with fur. This would explain their being cold adapted. After all, even if H. erectus had no hair in Africa, (also an assumption) there is no reason they could not have regained their lost pelts in 500,000 years.

Because the basic premise that makes Homo distinct from Pan is not being conscious of one's Self, but in objectifying its environment by disconnecting the Self from a previously non-conscious submersion in a Totality and thus creating a mode of living and thinking not passively to adapt, but to conquer and master what's physically not longer integrated.

Logically follows that ANY kind of garment is a manifest token of ones's distinction from the outer world, a shield harnessed to protect and defy what has become alien and threatening, so these archaic humans imbued by this new spirits might somehow adorned themselves with pelts, furs and possibly weaved or wreathed a kind of clothing from vegetation.

Mistress Klaus
Tuesday, September 21st, 2004, 04:33 PM
Because the basic premise that makes Homo distinct from Pan is not being conscious of one's Self, but in objectifying its environment by disconnecting the Self from a previously non-conscious submersion in a Totality and thus creating a mode of living and thinking not passively to adapt, but to conquer and master what's physically not longer integrated.

Logically follows that ANY kind of garment is a manifest token of ones's distinction from the outer world, a shield harnessed to protect and defy what has become alien and threatening, so these archaic humans imbued by this new spirits might somehow adorned themselves with pelts, furs and possibly weaved or wreathed a kind of clothing from vegetation.

To wear the aftermath of a slayed beast is to gain its power & insight. Obviously the majority of today's folk appear to be completely lost to this concept with the abuse of polyester & other such hideous man-made delusions of self-worth.